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Coach and Bus Week – 8 November 2006

In just a few years the internet has transformed the way we live and shop. But have the bus companies got to grips with websites? Mark Smulian plans some virtual journeys

In less than 10 years, the internet has moved from the preserve of academics to something used by millions of ordinary people.

It is still used for scientific research, but also now for everyday activities. Like catching a bus.

A large part of the public has joined the ranks of internet users, and it has become second nature to the under-25s.

But have bus operators and providers of travel information entered the digital age too?

As internet use spreads, potential passengers are increasingly likely to use websites to find information about bus services, and the quality of the information given there is enormously variable.

The most obvious problem for the would-be bus user is knowing where to start.

It might seem clear that one should use the website of whoever operates buses locally, but would someone who is not a regular passenger necessarily know which is the relevant operator?

They would certainly be unlikely to know if looking for information for a strange town.

Even if they did know, operator sites can have gaps in their information. Perhaps our intending passengers might turn to their local council's website for help, but these are not always reliable.

Some of these have simple links to local bus operators, but others have none, or nothing immediately obvious.

There is www.traveline.org.uk, the national site for public transport information, which is run by regional partnerships of councils and bus operators, who also meet the running costs.

It is supported by, among others, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the Local Government Association and its Scottish equivalent, central government and the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers.

Because Traveline is regionalised, each of its regional sites is slightly different, a complication that seems pointless since each eventually gives the same information.

Passengers who wish to make a journey that crosses a regional boundary will usually find that the regional sites link together to deliver a single answer.

There are though limits. When I asked it to find a journey from Penzance to Thurso, Traveline clearly sensed that it was having fun made of it, and declined to answer.

I tried, at random, its eastern region and asked for buses from Cambridge to March.

It quickly found four possibilities, of which the most direct was Stagecoach's X6, and in its thoroughness included a distinctly unattractive option that involved three changes.

Users are though left to guess that the tiny square icon by the route information led to a detailed timetable.

Traveline will go down to the level of individual bus stops, which is good, but it looks for point-to-point journeys and anyone who wanted information on a local network would have to make repeated enquires.

But suppose an intending passenger is unaware of Traveline and does the obvious thing of putting 'bus' and 'anytown' into a search engine.

I tried this with London. Sure enough, Transport for London's official site comes up, but next is something called 'London Bus Routes Home Page'.

Despite its name, this is an enthusiasts' site. It's great should one wish to know, say, which vehicles operated London's long-defunct 92B route in 1958 and from which garage, but of no help to today's passenger.

Similar sites are widespread, and need to be separated by users from information ones.

One may also get 'UK Bus Timetable Directory', which under the URL www.showbus.co.uk leads to a comprehensive set of links to each operator by region.

This makes it easy to find operators but has the assumption that passengers will necessarily know which operator they require.

The site also has a link to www.internet.xephos.com This has a simple search for journey planning, but requires users to register.

Its terms and conditions state that free registration lasts for seven days, or 100 hits, and that afterwards a modest 2 per month subscription is needed.

Xephos' home page starts with the somewhat baffling message "Hurray! The xephos internet database now contains over 1 million journeys - where a single 'journey' consists of the times for several stops for a range of days and dates", but gets more user-friendly after that, and includes endorsements from newspapers that have found it more useful than Traveline.

What if one tries a medium-sized city on a search engine? Searching 'Leicester' and 'bus' brings up First's website at the top of the list, but nothing over two pages of Google listings emerged for Arriva, which also runs a network in the city.

A promising entry called 'Leicester City Council Bus Scheme', turned out to refer to the residential redevelopment of a former depot.

The city council website itself has a link to First but not to Arriva, though it does have a PDF of Arriva's network map.

Arriva and First cover largely similar geographical areas around Leicester, and the intending passenger must swap between them to see which will offer the most suitable service.

What happens with a small town? 'Lyme Regis' and 'bus' brings up first a site not run by any operator called www.carlberry.co.uk

I was unclear who ran this and why (presumably a Mr Berry), but it has efficient links to all the routes that serve the town, mainly run by First and Stagecoach.

For those frustrated by waiting there is even a section called 'buses for sale'.

Operators are aware that their websites need their attention and have plans to widen their content and, perhaps longer-term, use them as marketing tools.

Gordon Dewar, commercial director of Arriva UK regions, says: "Our policy is to find out nature of information passengers want.

"The challenge is to keep up to date both in terms of the information and the technology about how we can display material."

Arriva plans to put real-time information on its website so that intending passengers see actual departure times, and hopes to experiment with season ticket purchases on-line and with marketing bus services to students, a group who are particularly heavy web users.

Mr Dewar explains that one difficulty is to know how users approach a site.

"We think people get on to sites first with Traveline," he says. "The problem comes when they want a timetable or route for a service they do not normally use, or for an area they do not know well.

"Traveline is the entry level and from there you can go deeper taking them into an operator's site for further information."

It is though difficult to present information in a manner suitable for all users.

Someone who wants to use a high frequency route would find the first and last journey times and an indication of frequency sufficient, but users of other routes would need a conventional timetable.

Stefan Soanes, business development manager at Go-Ahead's Oxford Bus Company, is in charge of its site and says the company does not as yet try to monitor its usage.

Go-Ahead websites are individually branded for each local operating name, unlike the other main groups, but the company is in the process of changing to a common platform for its sites.

This will not affect what users see, but they will be underpinned by a single IT system.

Oxford has developed its Smartcard so that when users buy a top-up on the web that information is sent to the fare machines on all buses.

Therefore, the next bus they use will 'know' that the card has been topped-up without the user needing to physically take it somewhere to feed it into a machine to validate the top-up credits.

"We think that is quite novel," Mr Soanes says.

The company also uses its website for bookings for its coach services to airports, which offer guaranteed seats.

Relatively little work is involved in site maintenance. Mr Soanes estimates that the two timetable change dates each year create between one and five hours worth of work each, and that normal news items, service updates and details of road works can be put up in minimal time.

FirstGroup's website starts with all its corporate activities, bus and rail services in the UK and overseas. It also carries recruitment advertisements, details on major projects such as York's ftr bus and a special site for students.

The site is undergoing a re-design to make it easier for visitors to navigate through this information.

Each bus operating company has its own site within the group one, and the new First style is being deployed.

One place that has it is Aberdeen. Here the site gives first an outline map and an invitation to click for the 'Aberdeen overground' map.

This is a diagrammatic map of city routes. Clicking to zoom in works well in the city centre, where street names and termini are shown clearly, but less well with the outer suburbs.

Only one depth of zoom is offered and the place names shown might be too small for anyone with imperfect sight.

Colour coded links take one to timetables, which show a line map of the route, first and last times and frequencies.

There is also a facility to search by destination name, but this appeared to work only for start and end points, not intermediate stops.

I have never set foot in Aberdeen, and this site gave me the confidence that I could have negotiated it by bus.

But for a place I know well, Southend, First's site had numerous annoying loose ends.

The diagram maps and first and last times and frequencies were there, but many had unexplained footnotes.

Some routes numbers could be clicked through to timetables, but some not, and the route 21 link brought up a different route 21 that operates in Braintree.

There is a separate link for timetables, which takes one into an Essex-wide list of routes.

There, Southend's 24 route carried no mention of the advertised 24A route, and had a list of 'journeys at these minutes past each hour until' with no end time.

Most of the site was perfectly good, but these sorts of gaps are what can deter would-be passengers.

First says its web design "is evolving as we learn what works, what doesn't and what needs changing".

It is developing on-line ticketing and uses the site to enable customer to give comments on services.

The industry is getting to grips with the web, but in both marketing and information provisions there is much for it still to exploit.